ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — Sen. Angus King has introduced a bill to Congress that would give federal lawmakers’ stamp of approval to the donation last year of 1,400 acres of land on the Schoodic Peninsula to the National Park Service.
Though no one has objected to the land being part of Acadia National Park, the manner in which it was transferred — without congressional approval — has raised the ire of officials from Mount Desert Island towns.
Thirty years ago, the possibility of Acadia continually expanding was an issue for MDI towns that were concerned they eventually could be swallowed up by the federal government. As a result, Congress passed a law in 1986 that required all acquisitions outside a specifically defined boundary limit to be approved by federal lawmakers. The Schoodic parcel, where the park opened the new Schoodic Woods campground last fall, lies outside that set boundary limit.
The transfer of the Schoodic property was completed without a vote by Congress, upsetting some area municipal officials and members of the Acadia Advisory Commission, who gave Acadia officials an earful on the issue when they met in February.
Park officials said the transfer was in keeping with a separate law about land donations that Congress had passed in 1929, but members of the commission said it flew in the face of promises they thought they had been guaranteed 30 years ago.
Members of the commission also objected to the fact that they were not consulted about the transfer before it took place, even though the commission was created by the same 1986 boundary legislation with a mandate to consult with the National Park Service on “the acquisition of lands and interests in lands,” according to information posted on the national park’s website.
King’s bill, called the Acadia National Park Boundary Clarification Act, would retroactively give congressional approval to the Schoodic land transfer and would negate the ability of the park service to use the 1929 law as justification for acquiring land, or interest in any land, that lies outside the 1986 boundary limit.
In a prepared statement, King noted that the most everyone agrees that the parcel, which five years ago was being considered for a major resort development, is a suitable addition to Acadia National Park. Since 1929, the park has owned 2,000 acres of land immediately to the south on the Schoodic Peninsula, and in 2002, the Navy deeded to the park another 100-acre parcel at the tip of the peninsula that now is home to the Schoodic Education and Research Center.
“But I also agree with local residents when they say that it’s critical that the acquisition is done in accordance with the intent of the 1986 law that affirmed the [boundary limit] of Acadia,” King said in the statement. “That’s why I am working with my colleagues and community leaders to advance legislation that would ensure the conveyance of the land is consistent with the 1986 law and that would clarify the exact boundary of the park moving forward.”
Gouldsboro resident Jacqueline Johnston, who is chairman of the park’s advisory commission, said Monday that the commission sent King a letter last week expressing support for the bill.
“This will resolve concerns and uncertainties that members of the Commission and the public
have expressed since the annexation was first announced in November 2015,” the commission wrote in the letter, which is dated June 28.
Johnston said the commission thinks that Congress’ lack of approval for the land transfer should not be allowed to languish.
“The sooner, the better,” Johnston said about getting the bill submitted. “The commission is very pleased to see this is moving forward.”
It is not the only undeveloped land in Maine that has generated questions this year about whether Congress should approve of it becoming the property of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Last month, two Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources held a field hearing in East Millinocket about a proposed North Woods national monument east of Baxter State Park. The North Woods proposal has generated controversy and political partisanship between opponents who say it would have an irreversible impact on access to and traditional uses of the land, and supporters who argue it would help offset the economic downturn in northern Maine brought on by the decades-long decline in paper manufacturing.
National park designations require a vote in support by Congress, but the creation of a national monument can be done by executive order of the president, without congressional approval.
King’s bill about the Schoodic land transfer also would address a couple of other points related to Acadia.
It would make permanent the advisory commission, which originally was given a 20-year lifespan in 1986 but was reauthorized by Congress in 2008 until 2026.
The bill also would change a requirement placed upon the town of Tremont for owning the parcel of land where its elementary school is located. Acadia deeded the land to Tremont decades ago with the condition that it be used for the town’s school, but King’s bill would allow Tremont to keep it as long as it is used “for public purposes.”
For years, Tremont and the neighboring town of Southwest Harbor have been considering whether to consolidate their elementary schools, but the deed’s reverter clause as currently written has come up as a potential obstacle to that effort.
The bill has been referred to the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which King is a member. It was not clear Monday when the committee might take up the bill for consideration.